Government violating constitutional guarantee of privacy with cellular data

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently published thousands of pages of previously unreleased records about how Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other parts of the Department of Homeland Security are sidestepping our Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable government searches and seizures by buying access to, and using, huge volumes of people’s cell phone location information quietly extracted from smartphone apps.

The records, which the ACLU obtained over the course of the last year through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, shed new light on the government’s ability to obtain our most private information by simply opening the federal wallet.

These documents are further proof that Congress needs to pass the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, which would end law enforcement agencies’ practice of buying their way around the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

Nearly 50 consumer-advocacy, media-justice and privacy-rights groups, including the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, Demand Progress and Free Press Action, called for enactment of the bipartisan legislation, which would stop the harmful and unconstitutional sales of personal information to government authorities without a legal warrant.

Data merchants frequently sell to intelligence and law enforcement agencies the data of tens of millions of people in the United States, claiming that federal statutes don’t specifically prohibit the use of digital apps and brokers even though a 2018 Supreme Court case ruled that the government violates the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution by accessing cellphone records containing historical physical locations without a search warrant.

ICE’s and CBP’s warrantless purchase of access to people’s sensitive location information was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in early 2020. After the news broke, the ACLU submitted a FOIA request to DHS, ICE, and CBP, and we sued to force the agencies to respond to the request in December 2020.

Although the litigation is ongoing, ACLU made public the records that CBP, ICE, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, and several offices within DHS Headquarters have provided us to date.

The released records shine a light on the millions of taxpayer dollars DHS used to buy access to cell phone location information being aggregated and sold by two shadowy data brokers, Venntel and Babel Street.

The documents expose those companies’ — and the government’s — attempts to rationalize this unfettered sale of massive quantities of data in the face of U.S. Supreme Court precedent protecting similar cell phone location data against warrantless government access.

Four years ago, in Carpenter v. United Statesthe Supreme Court ruled that the government needs a warrant to access a person’s cellphone location history from cellular service providers because of the “privacies of life” those records can reveal.

That case hinged on a request for one suspect’s historical location information over a several-month period.

In the documents we received over the past year, ACLU found Venntel marketing materials sent to DHS explaining how the company collects more than 15 billion location points from over 250 million cell phones and other mobile devices every day.

With this data, law enforcement can “identify devices observed at places of interest,” and “identify repeat visitors, frequented locations, pinpoint known associates, and discover pattern of life,” according to a Venntel marketing brochure.

The documents belabor how precise and illuminating this data is, allowing “pattern of life analysis to identify persons of interest.”

By searching through this massive trove of location information at their whim, government investigators can identify and track specific individuals or everyone in a particular area, learning details of our private activities and associations.

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